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The KLF: Discordianism, Robert Anton Wilson and the burning of £1,000,000 in cash

Perhaps one of the most bizarre events in modern music history occurred on August 23, 1994, when the British band The KLF burned £1,000,000 of their music career earnings in the fireplace of a boathouse on the remote Scottish island of Jura.

The burning of the cash occurred just two years after The KLF – the band name of artist-musicians Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty – had abruptly quit the music industry at the peak of their success, after being the biggest-selling singles act in the world for 1991, producing a chaotic headlining performance at the Brit awards where they performed with thrash metal band Extreme Noise Terror and Bill Drummond fired blanks from a machine gun at the audience (original plans for the night included throwing buckets of blood on the audience and Bill Drummond cutting off his own hand and throwing it into the audience).

One of the most overlooked aspects of The KLF however was that much of their story and the mythos around the band was informed by their shared interest in Discordianism and the related writings of Robert Anton Wilson – or at least it was overlooked until British author John Higgs wrote a brilliant book about the band, titled The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds where he delved into the strange, esoteric history of the band members and the eventual burning of the money.

We recently spoke to John about The KLF, the burning of the million pounds, and the influence of Discordianism and RAW on their career, as well as tangential topics that ranged from the ideas of Alan Moore to the occult, the power of the subjective world and the plague of disinformation in the modern world. Enjoy (and be sure to hit the big old subscribe button on our YouTube channel)!

As John noted in his book, one of the things that shocked people the most about the burning of the million pounds was that it “wasn’t money being wasted, it was money being negated”. He spoke to this further during the interview:

No one’s shocked that, you know, Elton John squanders so many million pounds on flowers or something like that. There’s the understanding that the money is just sloshing through to the economy as it’s supposed to. It’s supposed to move. It’s supposed to sort of slosh about and move things. And, you know, Elton John, “it’s a terrible waste, but then he earned the money himself”. Everyone’s kind of all right about that, you know.

But if you were to burn that money instead of spending it on flowers, people are just deep down appalled. It’s just, as I say, it’s taboo. It’s just so, so wrong. And it is, I mean, there’s a whole community of money burners that have sprung up in the aftermath of what the KLF did. And they see burning money as the only morally acceptable sacrifice that you can make.

Every religion has a form of sacrifice in it originally, sacrifice is an important sort of thing, but if you were to go off and sacrifice a goat, it’s not really fair on the goat, is it? Burning money is the only thing that is sort of morally, not harming others. You’re just harming yourself. You’re giving with absolutely no possibility of receiving anything back. It’s pure forgiveness, it’s pure surrender, it’s pure sacrifice. So it’s potent stuff, it’s absolutely potent stuff.

And when you hear about them burning the money, you get angry really, because it’s like they had this money and they didn’t want it. And at that point you’re thinking, “well I’d have it. They could, you know, they could give it to me”. They’re never going to give it to you. That was never going to be the option. Or you think, “well, they could have given it to charity or something like that.” We don’t know how much they did give to charity. They may have been giving a lot to charity. That’s not really sort of discussed. Your brain goes into all these sort of perspectives of why it’s just wrong. And it’s really wrong because we’ve just lived in a culture where the goal is to accumulate money, and that’s so deep in our thinking that to do the opposite of it is really shocking. It’s really shocking.

No matter what your opinion on the act of burning all that cash, the fact that we are still thinking and talking about it is illustration enough of the power of what they did.

Towards the end of the chat, we also delved into the topic of John’s next book, Doctor Who (Exterminate/Regnerate: The story of Doctor Who will be released in 2025) – a history which, weirdly enough, has a number of crossovers with The KLF. Given John’s talent at unearthing esoteric nuggets it should be a brilliant read, so why not put in a pre-order now.

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